JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Written off by many in his own party a mere month ago, Republican Rep. Todd Akin has been slowly rebuilding his Senate campaign after apologizing for inflammatory remarks about pregnancy and rape.
Now Akin is approaching a critical week that could determine whether his re-emerging campaign can gain enough momentum to put Missouri back in the battleground column as Republicans attempt to win control of the Senate from Democrats.
Tuesday is the deadline for Akin to get a court order to drop his challenge of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. But Akin says he won't do so. Instead, Akin plans to ramp up his campaign. He's holding a fundraiser Monday with former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. He's addressing a potentially influential group of pastors Tuesday morning. Then as the drop-out clock ticks down, he's kicking off a statewide bus tour for his Senate bid that will include venerable conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
"I believe the state of the campaign is looking better and better," Akin said Friday after engaging McCaskill in their first debate and then rallying on the Missouri Capitol lawn with supporters of a newly formed women-for-Akin coalition.
Akin has apologized repeatedly since a TV interview aired Aug. 19 in which he suggested that women's bodies have a natural defense against pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." He has repeatedly rejected calls of top national Republicans — including presidential candidate Mitt Romney — to quit the race so the state GOP committee can appoint a replacement candidate. Yet some have doubted his resolve.
"There are a lot of donors who have sat on the sidelines and are waiting" for Tuesday's drop-out deadline to pass, said Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who joined Akin's campaign as part of the re-building effort. "We are tilling that hard soil now — that is, reaching out to people who could potentially give significant amounts of dollars."
Come Tuesday, "those donors are going to see that Todd's going to be on the ballot," Tyler adds.
Whether that triggers an avalanche of money for Akin remains one of the most important questions facing his campaign.
Akin already was starting from behind against McCaskill financially after spending all but a few hundred thousand dollars to win a contentious Aug. 7 Republican primary. After his rape remark, Akin lost the financial support of the Republican National Committee, the Republican senators' political committee and the deep-pocketed Crossroads group affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove. That zapped millions of dollars of planned TV advertising.
Since then, Akin has raised nearly $600,000 through a small-dollar, online appeal that has cast his candidacy as an anti-establishment crusade against both Republican Party bosses and President Barack Obama's administration. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has aided the Internet fundraising drive. But Gingrich's event Monday — at $500 a person or $750 per couple — will be Akin's first prominent headliner for a traditional fundraiser in at least five weeks.
"This is an act of conscience on my part — I didn't like seeking a guy getting beaten up by the power structure," Gingrich said.
But Gingrich also is pragmatic.
"If the Republicans are going to win control of the Senate, they need Missouri," said Gingrich, who led the Republican takeover of the U.S. House in 1994.
Others also are considering coming to Akin's aid, including Sen. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, who has built the Senate Conservatives Fund into a formidable fundraising organization for its favored candidates.
Republicans need a net gain of four seats in the November elections to take control of the Senate. But Republican-held seats in Maine and Massachusetts are jeopardy, and losses there would increase the number of seats the GOP must wrest away from Democrats. Missouri had been considered one of the Republicans' best chances for a pick-up until Akin's rape remark undercut his campaign.
Republican consultant John Hancock, who worked for one of Akin's opponents in the primary, said outside groups had been expected to spend about $15 million to support a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri. Even then, a Republican candidate likely needed to chip in $6 million or $7 million from his own campaign to offset the money from McCaskill and Democratic-aligned groups, Hancock said.
Under that model, a typical candidate would need to be holding about two, $500-a-plate fundraisers a week and as many as five, $2,500-a-plate fundraisers a month, including some out of state, Hancock said.
Gingrich's fundraiser is just one of many that Akin will need in the coming weeks. But if he remains close in the polls to McCaskill, those dollars could start coming a little easier.
"If you get to the first week or second week of October and the Missouri race is still unquestionably part of the equation for getting to 51 senators, then I would be shocked if outside money didn't come in," Hancock said, of the Republican strategy to win control of the Senate.
Akin doesn't expect to recoup all of the financial support he lost. That's why his campaign is focusing heavily on organizing grass-roots coalitions. Akin likely can expect a strong effort from his traditional base of anti-abortion activists and Christian conservatives, but he also needs the support of gun enthusiasts and business owners, some of whom backed Akin's rivals in the Republican primary, Tyler said.
This past week, the inaugural event by a new group of female Akin supporters drew about 300 people in the St. Louis area. A few days later, around 100 turned out for a similar event in Jefferson City, though they were countered by protesters who chanted "rape is rape" while Akin spoke to the crowd.
Julie Thomas, a mother of three from the Lake of Ozarks, said she took it upon herself to organize the women-for-Akin rally. She described herself as strongly "pro-life" and praised Akin as "a man with unparalleled character."
"Whenever he got thrown under the bus by his own party, I just said, 'uh, uh.' That was a tipping point for me," Thomas said.
Even as top Republicans abandoned Akin after his remarks, McCaskill insisted that she still expected a close Senate race. At their first debate Friday, McCaskill took on the role of a challenger — striking first and furiously with accusations that Akin's positions are too extreme on contraception, Medicare, student loans and other issues.
"Our campaign is working hard and taking nothing for granted," said McCaskill spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki. "You can expect Claire to continue working as if she's running from behind."